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ABA Again Wades Into the Fraught Issue of Accrediting Overseas Law Schools
The National Law Journal
The third time may well be the charm this week as the American Bar Association's Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar debates whether to begin accrediting foreign law schools.
The council will take that matter up on Friday, during the ABA's annual meeting in Chicago, after twice delaying any decision.
An ABA panel of law professors, deans, judges and attorneys in 2010 recommended that the council seriously consider expanding its accreditation power to overseas law schools that follow the U.S. model. The panel cited the growing pressure facing bar associations and state judges regarding admission of foreign lawyers, and concluded that accrediting overseas law schools would help those decisions.
But a second ABA committee formed in 2011 to gather public comments reached a different conclusion in May. Citing overwhelming opposition, the eight-member committee unanimously recommended against accrediting overseas schools. Domestic law students in particular expressed concern that the move would increase competition for jobs.
That prompted an impassioned, 22-page response from administrators at the Peking University School of Transnational Law. The school, located in Shenzhen, China, is the first foreign law school to seek ABA accreditation.
The July 27 letter calls the latest ABA recommendation "badly flawed" but praises the earlier recommendation in favor or accrediting overseas law schools.
"The decision the Council will make is of great importance not only to [the Peking University]," the letter reads. "It will determine whether American legal education can be a global model or whether other countries will turn elsewhere."
The letter adds that the ABA's decision will determine whether the United States can claim the "moral high ground" as American law firms seek to move into foreign legal markets.
Peking Law was founded by former University of Michigan Law School dean Jeffrey Lehman in 2007 with a goal of bringing American-style legal education to China. Classes are conducted in English and Chinese.
The ABA received 645 responses to a public survey regarding the accreditation of overseas law schools from law students, deans, judges and bar officials. The move's supporters most often pointed to globalization, promotion of the rule of law and increased collaboration between U.S. and foreign law schools as reasons to go ahead.
Opponents zeroed in on four common critiques: that developing accreditation standards and monitoring compliance overseas would be difficult; that it would take ABA resources away from U.S. law schools; that foreign law schools have a difficult time effectively preparing students in the culture and ethics of the American legal system; and that it would be extremely difficult to modify accreditation standards for foreign law schools when the ABA engaged in an extensive review of the existing standards.
"In addition, many respondents, primarily students, raised concerns about the impact of expansion of the Accreditation Project would have on the employment opportunities for U.S. law graduates," according to an executive summary of the public responses.
The committee that collected public responses, whose members included John O'Brien, chairman of the ABA council and dean of the New England School of Law, ultimately agreed with many of those critiques and recommended against expanding accreditation. But the panel noted that tough questions regarding how foreign lawyers are admitted into practice in the United States would remain if the council does nothing.
Administrators at Peking Law contend that there is no evidence to support the reasons cited against expanding accreditation. Rather, the letter suggests, the council should adopt a policy that neither accommodates nor discriminates against foreign law schools.
"We ask that the Council rigorously restrict its consideration only to relevant matters that lawfully may be considered by an accrediting body," the law school's letter reads. "We ask that the Council focus its attention on the interests of those whom the accreditation process is intended to protect rather than on the interests of so-called 'stakeholders' in the status quo."